Import/Export development documentation

General development guidelines and tips for the Import/Export feature.

This document is originally based on the Import/Export 201 presentation available on YouTube.

For more context you can watch this Deep dive on Import / Export Development on YouTube.


The Import/Export feature is constantly updated (adding new things to export). However, the code hasn’t been refactored in a long time. We should perform a code audit to make sure its dynamic nature does not increase the number of security concerns. GitLab team members can view more information in this confidential issue:

Security in the code

Some of these classes provide a layer of security to the Import/Export.

The AttributeCleaner removes any prohibited keys:

# AttributeCleaner
# Removes all `_ids` and other prohibited keys
    class AttributeCleaner
      ALLOWED_REFERENCES = RelationFactory::PROJECT_REFERENCES + RelationFactory::USER_REFERENCES + ['group_id']

      def clean
        @relation_hash.reject do |key, _value|
          prohibited_key?(key) || !@relation_class.attribute_method?(key) || excluded_key?(key)


The AttributeConfigurationSpec checks and confirms the addition of new columns:

# AttributeConfigurationSpec
  It looks like #{relation_class}, which is exported using the project Import/Export, has new attributes:

  Please add the attribute(s) to SAFE_MODEL_ATTRIBUTES if they can be exported.

  Please denylist the attribute(s) in IMPORT_EXPORT_CONFIG by adding it to its corresponding
  model in the +excluded_attributes+ section.

  SAFE_MODEL_ATTRIBUTES: #{File.expand_path(safe_attributes_file)}
  IMPORT_EXPORT_CONFIG: #{Gitlab::ImportExport.config_file}

The ModelConfigurationSpec checks and confirms the addition of new models:

# ModelConfigurationSpec
  New model(s) <#{new_models.join(',')}> have been added, related to #{parent_model_name}, which is exported by
  the Import/Export feature.

  If you think this model should be included in the export, please add it to `#{Gitlab::ImportExport.config_file}`.

  Definitely add it to `#{File.expand_path(ce_models_yml)}`
  to signal that you've handled this error and to prevent it from showing up in the future.

The ExportFileSpec detects encrypted or sensitive columns:

# ExportFileSpec
  Found a new sensitive word <#{key_found}>, which is part of the hash #{parent.inspect}
  If you think this information shouldn't get exported, please exclude the model or attribute in

  Otherwise, please add the exception to +safe_list+ in CURRENT_SPEC using #{sensitive_word} as the
  key and the correspondent hash or model as the value.

  Also, if the attribute is a generated unique token, please add it to RelationFactory::TOKEN_RESET_MODELS
  if it needs to be reset (to prevent duplicate column problems while importing to the same instance).

  IMPORT_EXPORT_CONFIG: #{Gitlab::ImportExport.config_file}


Import/Export does not use strict SemVer, since it has frequent constant changes during a single GitLab release. It does require an update when there is a breaking change.

# ImportExport
module Gitlab
  module ImportExport
    extend self

    # For every version update, the history in has to be kept up to date.
    VERSION = '0.2.4'


Check for compatibility when importing and exporting projects.

When to bump the version up

If we rename model/columns or perform any format, we need to bump the version modifications in the JSON structure or the file structure of the archive file.

We do not need to bump the version up in any of the following cases:

  • Add a new column or a model
  • Remove a column or model (unless there is a DB constraint)
  • Export new things (such as a new type of upload)

Every time we bump the version, the integration specs fail and can be fixed with:

bundle exec rake gitlab:import_export:bump_version

A quick dive into the code

Import/Export configuration (import_export.yml)

The main configuration import_export.yml defines what models can be exported/imported.

Model relationships to be included in the project import/export:

  - labels:
    - :priorities
  - milestones:
    - events:
      - :push_event_payload
  - issues:
    - events:
    # ...

Only include the following attributes for the models specified:

    - :id
    - :public_email
  # ...

Do not include the following attributes for the models specified:

    - :name
    - :path
    - ...

Extra methods to be called by the export:

# Methods
    - :type
    - :type

Customize the export order of the model relationships:

# Specify a custom export reordering for a given relationship
# For example for issues we use a custom export reordering by relative_position, so that on import, we can reset the
# relative position value, but still keep the issues order to the order in which issues were in the exported project.
# By default the ordering of relations is done by PK.
# column - specify the column by which to reorder, by default it is relation's PK
# direction - specify the ordering direction :asc or :desc, default :asc
# nulls_position - specify where would null values be positioned. Because custom ordering column can contain nulls we
#                  need to also specify where would the nulls be placed. It can be :nulls_last or :nulls_first, defaults
#                  to :nulls_last

      column: :relative_position
      direction: :asc
      nulls_position: :nulls_last

Conditional export

When associated resources are from outside the project, you might need to validate that a user who is exporting the project or group can access these associations. include_if_exportable accepts an array of associations for a resource. During export, the exportable_association? method on the resource is called with the association’s name and user to validate if associated resource can be included in the export.

For example:

      - epic_issue

This definition:

  1. Calls the issue’s exportable_association?(:epic_issue, current_user: current_user) method.
  2. If the method returns true, includes the issue’s epic_issue association for the issue.


The import job status moves from none to finished or failed into different states:

import_status: none -> scheduled -> started -> finished/failed

While the status is started the Importer code processes each step required for the import.

# ImportExport::Importer
module Gitlab
  module ImportExport
    class Importer
      def execute
        if import_file && check_version! && restorers.all?(&:restore) && overwrite_project
          raise', '))
      rescue => e

      def restorers
        [repo_restorer, wiki_restorer, project_tree, avatar_restorer,
         uploads_restorer, lfs_restorer, statistics_restorer]

The export service, is similar to the Importer, restoring data instead of saving it.


# ImportExport::ExportService
module Projects
  module ImportExport
    class ExportService < BaseService

      def save_all!
        if save_services
 project, shared: @shared)

      def save_services
        [version_saver, avatar_saver, project_tree_saver, uploads_saver, repo_saver,
           wiki_repo_saver, lfs_saver].all?(&:save)

Test fixtures

Fixtures used in Import/Export specs live in spec/fixtures/lib/gitlab/import_export. There are both Project and Group fixtures.

There are two versions of each of these fixtures:

  • A human readable single JSON file with all objects, called either project.json or group.json.
  • A folder named tree, containing a tree of files in ndjson format. Do not edit files under this folder manually unless strictly necessary.

The tools to generate the NDJSON tree from the human-readable JSON files live in the gitlab-org/memory-team/team-tools project.


Use to generate the NDJSON tree.

The NDJSON tree looks like:

├── project
│   ├── auto_devops.ndjson
│   ├── boards.ndjson
│   ├── ci_cd_settings.ndjson
│   ├── ci_pipelines.ndjson
│   ├── container_expiration_policy.ndjson
│   ├── custom_attributes.ndjson
│   ├── error_tracking_setting.ndjson
│   ├── external_pull_requests.ndjson
│   ├── issues.ndjson
│   ├── labels.ndjson
│   ├── merge_requests.ndjson
│   ├── milestones.ndjson
│   ├── pipeline_schedules.ndjson
│   ├── project_badges.ndjson
│   ├── project_feature.ndjson
│   ├── project_members.ndjson
│   ├── protected_branches.ndjson
│   ├── protected_tags.ndjson
│   ├── releases.ndjson
│   ├── services.ndjson
│   ├── snippets.ndjson
│   └── triggers.ndjson
└── project.json


Use legacy-group-json-to-ndjson.rb to generate the NDJSON tree.

The NDJSON tree looks like this:

└── groups
    ├── 4351
    │   ├── badges.ndjson
    │   ├── boards.ndjson
    │   ├── epics.ndjson
    │   ├── labels.ndjson
    │   ├── members.ndjson
    │   └── milestones.ndjson
    ├── 4352
    │   ├── badges.ndjson
    │   ├── boards.ndjson
    │   ├── epics.ndjson
    │   ├── labels.ndjson
    │   ├── members.ndjson
    │   └── milestones.ndjson
    ├── _all.ndjson
    ├── 4351.json
    └── 4352.json
When updating these fixtures, ensure you update both json files and tree folder, as the tests apply to both.